'She Saved My Life'

updated 08/20/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I think it was right about here," Nell Hamm says to husband Jim as they hike up a hill in a forest of towering redwoods along California's north coast. "No, it was farther up," Jim says. The fit-looking couple chat as if looking for a favorite picnic spot; in fact the location has an awful pedigree. It's where, on Jan. 25, Jim was nearly killed by a mountain lion—and saved by his wife of 50 years, in a story that made international headlines. Now, seven months later, life is getting back to normal. "It's something," Jim says, "you slowly get over."

The lifelong exercise enthusiasts never dreamed they'd be locked in a life-and-death struggle when they set out on a nine-mile hike in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Nearing the end, however, Jim, 70, heard "a crunching sound." A moment later he was knocked to the ground by a 70-lb. mountain lion, which clawed his arms and face while sinking its teeth into his head. As he stuck his hand into the cat's mouth to try to limit the damage, Nell, 66, grabbed an 8-ft.-long log and started clubbing the animal. "I really was afraid he was going to die," Nell says. "That what we were doing wasn't going to be enough."

Years of scuba diving, however, had taught her to make quick decisions in dangerous situations. When Jim yelled that he had a ballpoint pen in his pocket, she pulled it out and jabbed the lion in the eye; seeing that had no effect, she resumed hitting it with the log. To the couple's relief, the lion released Jim—but turned toward her. Nell instinctively raised her hands over her head—making herself appear larger—and yelled. The lion turned tail and vanished into the forest. Bloodied and bruised, the couple struggled to the road, where Nell flagged down a motorist. (The lion, a young female, was shot by state game officials.)

Jim's troubles, though, were far from over. Nearly half his scalp had been torn off, his lips and right ear were mangled, he had a hole in his right arm, and he had a major infection doctors believe was caused by the lion's saliva. He underwent two surgeries locally, then was flown to a San Francisco hospital for a procedure in which muscle from his back was transferred to his scalp, then covered by skin grafted from his thigh. Despite a month of physical therapy and regular follow-ups, doctors don't know if he'll regain full use of his right arm and fingers, which suffered tendon damage.

The emotional scars also ran deep. During Jim's three-week hospitalization, "I was in constant fear I would lose him," Nell says. Both Jim and Nell still suffer flashbacks. "Sometimes I wake up at night and [the lion is], like, right there, and it makes me shudder," she says. They went to counseling briefly, but were, they say, already strong from having survived an earlier tragedy: In 1988 their only child, Danny, died from a cardiac arrhythmia. "When we lost Danny," Nell says, "we clumped together."

Today they're back to hiking—though now they carry pocket knives. And they're looking forward to a trip to New Zealand to mark their 50th wedding anniversary last February, a celebration they had to postpone because of the attack. "When you come so close to losing everything, you become very thankful," Nell says. "That's what I feel today, thankful that Jim is here."

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